Stephen Calender Talks:

By now, you may be slightly familiar with the name Stephen Calender, ex-programmer for NetDevil. A few weeks ago, I brought up his blog post in a Week in Review, that went into detail starting at the acquisition of Lego Universe by Lego (and subsequent layoffs) to the relationship between Gazillion and NetDevil and even advice on how to get hired in the industry. In his post, he also expressed his “frustration with fellow co-workers who primed the rumor machine,” dealing with how the media (including myself) managed to come across the news of the NetDevil layoffs before some of the people actually affected by the layoffs, thanks partially to the quick dissemination of details by laid off staff.

The next day I found an email from who else? Stephen Calender, with the hopes of explaining that his intention was not to “take a jab” (as I described it) at the media. So after a short back and forth, I saw this as an excellent opportunity for both of us, and requested an interview.

The interview is huge, so I’ve taken the liberty of hiding it behind the break.


First off, can you give us any information on Auto Assault from its inception to release to shut down? My understanding is that, by the end, NetDevil attempted to sell Auto Assault to NCSoft (the publisher at the time) but was turned down. Do you have any experience or knowledge in NetDevil’s dealing with NCSoft, and if so what was that like?

I actually have no first hand knowledge of Auto Assault.  Many of the people that built Auto Assault were still employed by NetDevil, while it wasn’t received well you can tell they were all proud of that project.  Creating incredibly unique MMO’s was NetDevil’s passion, and many of the technical accomplishments of Auto Assault were definitely a factor in landing LEGO as a client.  It was common practice to take pictures anytime you found Auto Assault posters or disks still in retail stores.  I believe the racing code in LEGO Universe was initially extracted from the Auto Assault code base.

How would you describe the presence of Gazillion At NetDevil? Hands on or hands off?

Hands off, to a fault.  I think we maybe had one corporate HR person that split their time between our office and the headquarters in San Mateo.  After Scott Brown left, the NetDevil founder who was president of NetDevil, we had an interim president sent from corporate, Stuart Moulder.  Mr. Moulder (http://gamesauce.org/news/2011/01/05/stuart-moulder/) was actually pretty cool, very sharp fellow, but I have the feeling he most mostly a steward of the company without a ton of control to do anything.  Lack of communication was a big frustration, as employees we never felt like we had a platform to submit ideas, criticism, feedback; and I know in particular Scott felt left out of the corporate loop and ham-stringed when he attempted to improve or change anything.  We felt a little too much like just property instead of people.   

You say that Gazillion’s relationship with NetDevil was lacking. From a development point of view, were there any big delays that can be attributed to Gazillion? Did development plans have to be reviewed by the parent company?

No, Gazillion to my knowledge was not a contributor to any delays; I actually imagine that they were frustrated with the delays internal to NetDevil.  However, when your client [LEGO] is paying the development bills and adds an extension for more features you let them have what they want, which is super rare most of the time clients rush for the finish line when they think the project is good enough.  Like I mentioned before, LEGO and Gazillion didn’t see eye to eye, but they main point is that all production approval / planning / scheduling was between LEGO and NetDevil.

Is there any information relating to Jumpgate Evolution you can part with? That website is down with no news apart from the lawsuit with Codemasters.

Right, I am going channel David Brevik’s last interview with Gamastura 
“I can’t talk about that” 

Let’s go back to your pet, Lego Universe. Now that the game has the backing of Lego Group, in your opinion is the game in better hands? Obviously there are members of the NetDevil group still working on it, but from a financial backing point of view.

Actually, despite everything, I think LEGO Universe will be around for a while.  Yeah, I guess I disagree with shrinking the team as much as they did, but there is still plenty of remaining talent to tackle whatever they set their eyes on.  LEGO can certainly afford whatever they would like to build, their company is incredibly solid, they publish their numbers if you want to look and LEGO Universe is actually more affordable than most of the LEGO sets.  Big hurdles I see in their path, they really need to ramp up their marketing – I do not understand why they have been keeping the project on the DL.  The smaller team is totally capable, but do they have enough bandwidth to generate enough content and features to meet the communities demand?

Lastly, LEGO can be its own worst enemy, the best and worst thing about them is a complete obsession with quality and customer experience, seriously, it is stunning to witness.  So how could that ever be a bad thing?  Well a lot of the MMO market is this very test and react place, where for better or worst many people throw as much rough but playable content at their customers to see what they will respond to – then just give them more of what they seem to like.  It is tough for most people to grasp that some things take a while for us to build, so we have to project what the market wants or will be trending months or years in advance – it is a huge investment of time and energy to risk to guessing.

Was the decision to incorporate a free aspect in Lego Universe decided on by NetDevil, or by Lego Group?

You know, it is an incredibly difficult thing to sell a kids game, because while your audience is children (or children at heart perhaps) the parents are the ones holding the purse strings.  I’m sure that I wasn’t the only one to notice that LEGO’s price point has gradually decreased over the last couple months.  LEGO was definitely testing the waters price point wise, they certainly have the resources to be patient, pricing is kind of a one way street, you typically only move down until you meet demand, its a common thing.  It’s not like we were not aware of our competition in that space (Toontown, Wizard101, Free Realms, etc), which have free to play options.  It is just your typical post launch move to extend your games reach and create more opportunities to grab and convert users into subscribers, the only real decision was probably when in the pipeline they were comfortable making it.

I agree that Lego Universe needs more exposure, and the upcoming free trial should work to alleviate the first major barrier (cost of entry). Lego did have television commercials, however, which is more than most mmo’s can boast. Lego Universe will continue to face the issue of being advertised to kids and simultaneously carrying a subscription, meaning convincing mom that she should pay monthly for what her kid might get bored with next week. As someone who works retail, I agree that explaining a subscription based game to your average mother is like pulling teeth. I get the occasional email from “concerned parents” asking why I talk about “subscriptions and microtransactions as if they are good things,” and people who believe me to be part of some elaborate ponzi scheme.

I am not surprised somehow, again I just think some people (like my own parents) have a very small grasp of technology and how things work.  I think people better understand a subscription when they realize that we have ongoing costs to customer service, supporting servers, moderating player generated content, and that we release more of the game over time.  Microtrans is even tougher to explain to someone, and we are honestly still experimenting with it as an industry – but the main point there is we are trying hard to let you play the game and figure out if you like it / how much you want to invest in it – as opposed to the old trial period leading to full purchase model.

From what you’ve described, it seems like Lego had a huge creative investment in Lego Universe, which I admire, and the attention to such detail can be clearly seen in game. Where a lot of big name IP games tend to say “let’s make this like World of Warcraft but with a new coat of paint,” Lego Universe managed to retain what made Lego unique, which as a 20-something year old who grew up with Lego I feel I can comfortably say I play it. Your thoughts?

Yes, I was quite the fan of LEGO when I was young, which is why it was such a joy to help create.  Admittedly, I don’t play the game anymore; but I of course experienced it extensively during my time working on it, and probably worked on and played parts of the game still yet to go live.

Attaching any one theme to a LEGO MMO would do it a disservice.  That is it’s amazing potential and also its design pitfall / paradox.  We really wanted to pull from every LEGO set out there and went with the planet chunks concept so that we could have pirates, ninjas, space police, power miners, underwater, high seas, urban, medieval, and all of the rest of the play-sets in one game.  They tried to really show how interesting an MMO could be when you pull from all those different themes and mix them together – it is also a significant challenge for tech and art to support all of those themes and design to balance things like a chef battling a beast lord and have the world not feel like a bunch of random juxtapositions.
When we were looking at other games and MMOs, we typically looked at games that were successful for our younger target audience, and building an MMO for people that have never played an MMO or even a PC game before.  Particularly on the UI team, the WoW UI was the last thing that we wanted to recreate.
Still, when you are working on something fairly generic like a minimap or a chat system, you pull ideas from other games you have experienced and your competition and try to extract the good bits and come up with new ideas for things you thought could be done better.

There was an obvious need to emulate the LEGO titles done by the Telltale Games to not alienate existing LEGO game players and give some consistency across LEGO titles, but we were free to deviate when we thought we could create a better experience.  Again, specific to the UI team, a big challenge was to make something that did not intimidate a very young audience, but also did not make our older lifetime LEGO fans feel awkward and uncomfortable like it was a game obviously directed at children – its a good feeling to hear you say that you are playing.As we talked before, and I guess one place were we did replicate WoW was in the business / payment model.  I still think that many non-gamers and clients just refer to a WoW type game as any game with a subscription model – it must be the only reference they really know.  So even when they say something like“let’s make this like World of Warcraft but with a new coat of paint,” they are not really talking about the game itself, just how they are going to monetize it (and if they really do mean that, I would hope to convince them of something better to build with our time or find a polite way to show them the door).

In your blog, you state your position on Lego Universe had to do with how the systems interacted in-game. To appease the huge amount of complaints I get assuming developer incompetence, could you delve a little into how difficult coding separate systems to work together is?

Wow, I think I could write a book about what it is like to be a professional programmer and / or what it is like to build games.  So I am going to assume that most people are like my parents and believe that I am some kind of technical warlock that interacts with a computer in the way it is perceived in the movies, like I am Neo from the Matrix or something.  And I am going to assume that you mainly want to talk about programming since you mentioned the coding bits.  I was a User Interface Programmer on LU (LEGO Universe), so um what does that mean to the naive reader?  My entire focus is on the places where the virtual game world and the actual world meet.  Player controls, mouse controls, windows menus, interacting with game objects, displaying feedback to the user, does the action the user is taking in the real world mimic or sync well with what is going on in the game space, are we displaying and conveying information that is concise / easily digestible / and what our players want to know.

On the long list of things I worked on for LU included things like missions, achievements, what we called the passport (your diary or progress journal), inventory, trade, vendor screens, all manor of health bars and status displays, loading screens, I worked on the minigame HUDs for the racing and survival games, minimaps, zone maps, and there is probably a bunch of stuff I am leaving out.   I actually thought most of the day on how I would begin to answer this, so here it goes:There is an old adage about programming that goes ‘10% of the code runs 90% of the time’.  Programmers spend a good chunk of our time tracking down and writing code for all the ways something could blow up.  We are human, we do miss things from time to time, but I agree that there really isn’t a good excuse for broken toys.  Computers and programming languages are at their core a giant math model, an MMO on scale with LU probably has something like, i dunno 500,000 to one million lines of code, so a flawless game of that size would be like getting a perfect score on a math test with that many questions, and while we can review our work – don’t forget this is a timed test too.

As you can likely guess sometimes it actually takes more time to find the code to change than the time it takes to fix it.  It isn’t some static entity either, on these big titles there are 30 or more programmers all changing code in different places every day.Almost no one builds everything for a game completely in house anymore.  LU’s foundation was built on a Gamebryo engine that we highly modified, our Physics stuff used Havok, our User Interface relied on a technology called Scaleform, our chat servers talked with 3rd party servers to restrict / enforce / moderate chat to make the world safe for kids, we had to integrate with some LEGO software so that things you build in the game with LEGO can be optimized, again I might be leaving something out but I think you get the idea – there are times when we are at the mercy of another entity to fix bugs in their software.

Sometimes our best option is to guess at the source of a problem.  How easy a bug is to fix largely depends on how reproducible a bug is, are there steps A then B then C that suddenly result in the bug.  Bugs that are really rare, or just seem to randomly happen from time to time are brutal for us to fix, we have whole departments of QA staffers that send us videos and notes – but yeah you surmise that to independent activities are clashing or a unique asynchronous event jammed the works in these cases, or it could be related to delays in information traveling from the server to clients, or in the case of PC games where we have this insane idea or trying to support every bit of existing hardware in every configurable permutation from the past ten years and future machines that have yet to be built – some issues that only present on some unique hardware / config settings.

In the case of MMOs sometimes we have issues with just replicating the test environment or testing ‘under load’ where we spin up thousands of simulated client machines to tax the servers and data paths enough to capture issues.  Sometimes bugs for MMOs are across different clients – I can see your avatar but you can’t see mine.  We spend a lot of time to build tools and configurations to test builds of our games, we try really hard, these things – in particular MMOs – are also just really complicated things.  And simulated clients are not perfect, they do not have our human eyes, which is why I can come across seemingly non-existent, invisible quest NPCs in WoW, yet you can still target and complete the mission with keyboard slash commands because NPC is ‘technically their’, so sim clients probably gave a false positive in that regard.

Some bugs just are not worth fixing.  Yep, some we find are just say, it’s good enough.  Sometimes we lovingly refer to these as ‘features’ in the industry.  It is just the economics of having limited time.  These are usually really minor things most of the time, or if they are more serious bugs their occurrence is exceedingly rare.  If they do not stop your progression in the game, do not contribute to an exploit, or are not too discomforting we are tempted to just work on more fun things for you to experience.  How important is it that 1 in every 100 enemies seems to get lost and starts furiously spinning in a circle, i dunno but it is pretty hilarious when it happens, how long will it take you to fix, i dunno I also have these crazy new enemies that need work from designers for our next dungeon…

Oh yeah, I guess it is also worth mentioning that programmers do work with these people called artists, audio, designers, producers, in LU’s case language localization teams.  Sometimes things break because bad assets get in the pipeline, sometimes this is also the programmers fault as we provided poor tools for them to integrate their resources.

So to close this lengthy response, I’ll pass on the same wisdom I gave when I failed a junior programmers first code review.  It’s not enough that this code just works for the time being, we are never going to be able to move forward if we are constantly returning to this system to do maintenance.  We need to write this system so well that it can’t possibly fail, and if it does it logs why it failed.  It needs to be robust and flexible enough that it will work with systems we haven’t even thought of yet.  In many ways I consider the achievement reward system the best system I wrote, since we needed to edit it the lease of all systems, and it went something like an entire year of development without needing any revision.

A good portion of your article relates to being hired in the gaming industry. Patience is a virtue, as you say. Are there any cardinal rules to a person trying to sell themselves to the industry? A lot of recruiting boards I see seem to be saturated with “idea guys” who have no discernible programming or art talent but seem to think they can do all the planning.

I am not sure I fully understand your meaning, maybe you could send me some of the listings you are referring too.  I find it difficult to work with anyone that has no knowledge of how games are built from a programming or artistic perspective.  I typically think of designers as ‘idea guys’, it is rare to get hired out of school or with no experience as a designer, that path usually starts from a career in programming or art, designers need to be able to communicate their ideas to the rest of us and need a vision of how the art and tech will come together – they just have a ton of responsibility to bear.  If you were indicating people hiring for producers / planners, I am not sure I have any great advice particular to that career.The most important thing if you are completely green or thinking about games is to just start building stuff.

Set retardedly small small and simple goals at first.  Give yourself a weekend or maybe two week at most.  Build whatever is in your skill set. If that is a collectable card game, give it life.  If it is a corny text based adventure in HTML, do it.  If it is a board game, build a prototype and try to sell it.  Build up to more impressive, ambitious, longer projects, and full fledged video games.  You need a strong grasp the basic fundamentals of fun, entertainment, story, progression, challenge, and just showing someone you have the passion to see a project of your own through.  You should be about to break down and extract the essence of an experience to what worked and what didn’t work, and understand why it was fun or engaging.Don’t expect to immediately get a job at Blizzard, Valve, Epic Games, Firaxis, Bioware, or any of the other top studios; even when you are qualified the vetting process is lengthy.

There is; however, no shortage of interesting, challenging, and innovative projects going on.  The games industry is very much like and exclusive club, you really need to play the humble card, and while it is games and entertainment you should really bring your professionalism A-game for the interview process – the competition is fierce.  If you have never been go to the Game Developers Conference, its worth it just for the connections you can make – and if you are still struggling for attention you can scout out others that seem to be succeeding and connect with others trying to get into the industry.

To wrap this up, do you have anything else you would like to say? About anything, really.

Well it’s been fun.  I’m not sure I am totally worthy of receiving this much attention as a game industry person with really only one major title under my belt.  It is always nice to have a serious and intelligent conversation about games.  I hope you and everyone else stay away from the ‘idea guys’ that do not want to get their hands dirty with some of the real work involved in making something happen – personally I always have a ton of ideas brewing, you have got to have more to bring to the table than a couple broad ideas.  I mostly talk about Flash and very technical endeavors (not exactly your audience) but I would greatly appreciate a plug for my blog if you are comfortable doing that. [and if I totally botched some spelling or grammar despite proof reading please edit it or ask me to correct it, I already noticed a few errors in my previous email]

I want to thank Stephen Calender once more for answering my questions in great detail, and we wish him the best of luck at his new job. Check out Stephen Calender’s blog here: http://www.stephencalenderblog.com/

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